Fresno Bishop Named in Lawsuit

Doug Hoagland, The Fresno Bee

A Wisconsin family is suing Fresno Catholic Bishop John Steinbock and nearly 180 other American bishops to make them disclose the names and whereabouts of sexually abusive priests.

The family of Daniel O’Connell believes that a Wisconsin priest suspected of child molestation killed O’Connell, who was checking out reports that the priest sexually abused children.

The priest, the Rev. Ryan Erickson, killed himself in 2004, two years after O’Connell was fatally shot.

O’Connell’s brother said Tuesday the bishops are responsible for men such as Erickson becoming priests. Releasing the names of other abusive priests would be a start toward reform, said Tom O’Connell of Cross Plains, Wis.

“That’s saying the bishops realize there is a problem and they want to begin the healing process. To this point, they haven’t done that,” O’Connell said.

Steinbock was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached to comment. Jesse Avila, director of communications for the Diocese of Fresno, said he had no plans to call Steinbock about the lawsuit.

“We don’t have a copy of the lawsuit and we haven’t been served,” Avila said. “We are aware of it.”

The diocese covers eight Central California counties and has its headquarters in Fresno.

The lawsuit was filed in August in St. Croix County, Wis., where Daniel O’Connell lived.

He and another man were shot and killed on Feb. 5, 2002, at the O’Connell Family Funeral Home in Hudson, Wis., according to news accounts.

Police questioned Erickson about the shootings in late 2004, and the priest hanged himself a few days later. News accounts say a Wisconsin judge ruled in 2005 there would have been enough evidence to charge Erickson in O’Connell’s slaying and that Erickson probably did it.

Tom O’Connell said he doesn’t believe Steinbock had any connection to Erickson. But, he added, Steinbock is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which makes church policy.

“Every one of the bishops is responsible for Ryan Erickson,” O’Connell said. “If there was a correct policy in place, Ryan Erickson would never have been a priest.”

O’Connell said his family is not seeking monetary damages: “We’re not asking that they pay us off and go away. We’re asking that some actual reform be done.”.

The reporter can be reached at dhoagland@fresnobee.comor (559)441-6354.